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Game of Thrones Recap: Young Men With Big Jobs

At the beginning of this season, I wondered who would emerge as the new center of Game of Thrones, now that Ned Stark was dead. I had assumed it would be fan-favorite Tyrion or, failing that, Ned’s son Robb. But now, with only three hours left in this installment of the series, I’m surprised to find that — of all people — Theon Greyjoy has become the heart of the show for me.

Part of this is thanks to the fact that, of all the major story lines this season (and there have been, by my latest count, about 397), Theon’s has had the most consistent presence and the clearest arc: It’s rare that we shift to a Theon scene and I think, Oh, that’s where he’s been all this time.

But Theon’s journey has also explored, deeply, the major themes of the show — power, family, loyalty — and done so from the most extreme vantages. In Theon, we see not only the attractions of power but its dangers; the comforts of family and its limitations; the importance of loyalty and its complications. Like several other members of his generation, Theon is trying to learn (painfully and publicly) how to be a leader and, by extension, an adult. But as he struggles to do so, he’s become the prime example of another of the show’s central themes: the capacity for individuals to make awful choices that have awful consequences. Theon’s growing up, but he’s growing crooked. The scene at the end of “A Man Without Honor,” in which he unveils what we’re to take are the charred bodies of Bran and Rickon, is the terrible endgame that Game of Thrones has been setting up for several episodes now — one that even Theon doesn’t seem prepared for.

Even as he does horrible things, though, Theon has our empathy; we understand, even if we can’t condone, why he does what he does, which isn’t something you can always say about everyone in Game of Thrones. As show creator D.B. Weiss noted in an HBO clip about the episode, Theon wants desperately to belong, to some place and some people. Its his personal choices that move his plotline forward, and they do so in a way that’s consistently rooted in his psychology and his history, making him the most satisfying character in a show that can often feel like it’s moving its players around on a big animated map in order to hit predetermined narrative targets.

Compare Theon’s story line to that of Ned Stark’s other almost-son Jon Snow, who has spent most of this season bumbling around in a pretty, pouty fog before being captured, conveniently, by Mance Rayder’s wildings. Or to Daenerys, who in this episode found herself caught up in a spectacularly out-of-left-field Qarthian coup as Pyat Pree — who, we learn, stole her dragons — slaughtered the other members of the Thirteen, making Xaro Xhoan Daxos the king of Qarth. (Does Pyat Pree give anyone else flashbacks to the Gentlemen from Buffy?)

I like a bonkers surprise as much as the next person, and the scene made me very excited that True Blood — where it would have felt right at home — is coming back soon. But I want to see less stuff happen to Daenerys and for Daenerys to do more stuff. I get that dealing with forces beyond one’s control is a big part of life in GoT, and I understand the appeal of getting to occasionally drop into an exotic locale after all that time in grim Westeros. But the Daenerys scenes last night felt even more tangential than they have in the past, which just seems to me a waste of a rich character.

“A Man Without Honor” built on last weeks child-centric episode with a number of scenes that looked at adult-child dynamics from various angles, exploring the question of what kind of power adults have on the young people around them — and vice versa. In the cage scene between Jamie Lannister and Ser Alton (son of the single “fat Lannister”), Game of Thrones got a brand-new kind of seduction scene: the wooing of the starry-eyed follower by the storied hero. The mounting horror-film dread of that scene, which ended with poor Alton being killed — uselessly, as it turned out — by the Kingslayer echoed the mood in Harrenhal, where Arya and Tywin continued their (still totally improbable!) love fest against an eerily swelling soundtrack, as the camera made menacing close-ups on knives and the back of Tywin’s vulnerable neck. This will not end well for one of them.

Meanwhile, the softening of Cersei continued, as the queen showed an uncommon kindness toward Sansa, who has finally “flowered” and is now ready to be wed and impregnated by Joffrey. (The fact that Sansa wakes up to bloody sheets after having a nightmare about her near-rape during the King’s Landing riot may have been a bit too schematic, but it added a keen urgency to the following moments, when she and Shae — who has, it seems, turned into a real ally for the young girl — desperately scramble to hide the evidence of her womanhood.) Losing Myrcella has clearly weakened Cersei, who is no longer the bitchy ice queen from the dinner party in episode three; now, she’s sharing stories of her own lonely marriage and childbearing experiences with a bewildered Sansa, who has already had an unnerving encounter with one adult (the Hound) whose feelings toward her have seemed difficult to parse of late.

Cersei’s behavior in that scene felt a little ungrounded — it seemed like a more dramatic character shift than we’d been entirely prepared for — but it made more sense after her next scene, in which she confessed to Tyrion that she can’t control Joffrey, and broke down as she wondered whether her son’s evilness is the price for her sins with Jamie. In this, she echoed her father’s earlier lines to Arya about a legacy being “what you pass down to your children, and your children’s children. It’s what remains of you when you’re gone.” (Game of Thrones may have a weakness for putting taglines in its characters’ mouths, but sometimes they’re apt.) The silent moment between Tyrion and Cersei as Tyron moves to comfort her and Cersei half-grimaces, as if she both welcomes and is repulsed by his touch, was a wonderful one — and one that brought Jamie, silently, into the room as the absent, idealized brother (and man) Tyrion can’t live up to, for all his skills and charms.

Finally, I wish I could summon up some cogent thoughts on the Jon-Ygritte story line, because I do love Rose Leslie in the part. But Kit Harrington, as pretty as he is, wasn’t giving her much to work with, and the endless banging on about, well, banging got tiresome fast. Ygritte is supposed to represent a kind of noble savagery — where freedom from “society” means freedom, full stop. But if you don’t actually believe or understand Jon Snow’s commitment to the Black (which I don’t), then the alternative Ygritte presents is an empty, shallow temptation. Here’s hoping that, when we finally meet Mance Rayder — as it seems we will in next week’s episode — Jon’s story line will pick up and go somewhere more interesting.

See you next week. And hey — is that a knife in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

Photo: HBO